Ordered by the public safety minister to investigate cellphone surveillance around Canada’s Parliament Hill, Canada’s national police force admitted Wednesday that it is routinely conducting cellphone surveillance on investigations across the country.
But the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) says it isn’t responsible for the surveillance activity that has been detected in a politically-sensitive downtown Ottawa sector that encompasses the prime minister’s office and the United States embassy.
In response to the CBC report, RCMP organized a technical briefing for members of the national media — to confirm that an investigation is underway to identify the source of the possible espionage and to acknowledge — for the first time — that it also monitors cellphone conversations in the pursuit of criminal activity.
RCMP Chief Supt. Jeff Adam said the force “absolutely who is in charge of technical investigations services, said in in the briefing.
Adam’s briefing focused on the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers and how they are used for espionage purposes.
“Not everyone uses the equipment in the way the RCMP does,” Adam said. “It is publicly known there is equipment out there that is not limited in its capturing of communications between devices. And so it’s a security risk when it is used in proximity to government and/or any other commercial enterprises.”
Adam told reporters that he is not “personally aware” of foreign governments using the technology for illegal purposes in Canada, but he “can’t rule that out.”
He is familiar with the devices, which are also called Stingrays or Mobile Device Identifiers (MDIs).
The RCMP has used the 10 MDIs in its possession in scores of criminal investigations, 19 alone in 2015. In all but one of the cases, the police secured warrants.
“This technology is a vital tool in providing valuable assistance to criminal investigations,” Adam said, though he emphasized that it cannot be used without the approval of senior police leadership and a judge’s order — that has to be renewed to probe beyond merely identifying a device and discovering “basic subscriber information,” or the name and address of the person who owns the phone. If the suspect’s phone remains part of the investigation, police can seek further legal authorization to conduct a wiretap.
Their devices may allow police to identify a mobile device and its location but it cannot “collect private communication. In other words, it does not collect voice and audio communications, email messages, text messages, contact lists, images, encryption keys or basic subscriber information.”
That equipment exists and it is suspected of being used to tap conversations in and around Parliament Hill.
Adam acknowledged that, at the very least, anyone using a device like that to tap private or confidential conversations without the requisite authorization would be contravening section 191.1 of the criminal code and breaking the Radiocommunications Act.
He could also be guilty of espionage. But the RCMP wasn’t going there — not this week anyway.